Baptist pastor takes on insurer who targeted his son

Cold-calling sales under scrutiny at banking royal commission

A Baptist pastor from Melbourne who testified at the banking royal commission this week has called out the practice of targeting vulnerable people with cold-calling telephone sales tactics.

“One of the key issues for me in all of this, from a personal and wider social justice perspective, was to raise awareness of the impact that this kind of behaviour [the widespread practice of unsolicited cold calling] can have on those who are most vulnerable or at risk,” Pastor Grant Stewart told Eternity today.

Grant Stewart’s son blamed himself for the sale.

“Sometimes, as I believed to be so in this case, there is a need for those who are able, to ‘call out’ the actions of those who would prey on the innocent.”

On Tuesday, the Doncaster Baptist Church pastor told the banking royal commission his 26-year-old son who has Down Syndrome had been cold-called by a telemarketer working for ASX-listed Freedom Insurance. Stewart’s son was sold various kinds of life insurance as well as being signed-up for fortnightly direct debit payments – all within a single phone call.

Stewart explained that his son had “reasonable numeracy and literacy skills,” so owned his own debit card, but would call his parents to discuss a purchase before making one.

When paperwork from the insurer arrived in the mail – the first Stewart knew of the incident – he phoned the company to complain and find out what had happened and cancel the insurance. The representative he spoke with would not cancel the policy immediately and told him she’d look into his complaint and call him back. She did not.

Stewart says his son blamed himself for the sale. He “believed he’d done something wrong” and “was quite embarrassed and didn’t know what he’d done.” Since the incident in 2016, his son has continued to feel apprehensive about answering the phone and has lost self-confidence.

After numerous phone calls and emails with the insurer, Stewart filed a complaint with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, requesting the recordings and transcripts of the sales call. Finally, after coaching his distressed son through saying the phrase “I wish to terminate the policy” on the phone to the insurer, Freedom agreed to cancel the policy.

Two years later, Stewart received the recordings and transcripts. They confirmed for him that his son had demonstrated a limited understanding of the commitment he was allegedly expressing during the initial sales call. There were long pauses as his son struggled to respond to questions and, at one point, he even said he needed to go.

On Tuesday, these tapes were played for the royal commission. They also heard emails to the telemarketer which affirmed his high sales, although he had been the subject of many customer complaints and subsequent warnings.

With the company’s sales tactics under scrutiny, Freedom’s Chief Operating Officer Craig Orton publicly apologised to Pastor Glen Stewart and his son, saying: “Mr Stewart, to you and your son, I sincerely apologise that your son had to be put through that, and you have that from the bottom of my heart. It should not have occurred.”

“I wanted to help prevent what happened to our son, happening to others in similar circumstances.” – Grant Stewart

Stewart told Eternity that he “deeply appreciated the public apology offered by the recently appointed Chief Operating Officer of the company involved in this incident – even if it took two years to happen.”

“This following-through of a complaint from more than two years ago was, for me, a desire to address a much broader issue than what happened to us personally.

“I wanted to help prevent what happened to our son, happening to others in similar circumstances.

“How we as a community treat those who are unable to speak up for themselves or, as in this case, to accurately discern the value/need of products such as Funeral or Accidental Death Insurance, can be a measure of the value or worth we as a society give to these “little ones”.

“Some of these cold-calling insurance companies appear to have deliberately targeted the poorest of communities to sell their products. Both ASIC and the royal commission are hoping to initiate legislative change to ensure that this practice ceases.”

The incident has clearly left the pastor considering society’s economic practices more broadly. He remarked that “there is also the lingering aroma wafting through from incense-burners on the tables of the Temple Money-changers about all of this, indelibly marking those whose primary concern is gain and profit – even if it is at the expense of those who are least able to afford it.”

Yet despite the ordeal, Stewart is counting his blessings. He told Eternity that he has been particularly appreciative of two aspects of the experience – “the respectful attitude of the often-maligned media, particularly in honouring our request with regard to anonymity for our son”, and the “tireless work of the Consumer Action Law Centre who have partnered with me through this process.”

“Their pro-bono work on behalf of those least able to afford it is to be highly commended.”